June 30, 2005

People with more than five bumper stickers on their cars scare me.

Case in point: while I was driving home from the gym earlier this week, I couldn’t help but notice that the young woman in front of me was sporting a wealth of reading material on the rear of her black compact car. Predictably, most of the bumper stickers consisted of stupid puns and hippie-speak — e.g., MY KARMA RAN OVER MY DOGMA and VISUALIZE WHIRLED PEAS.

Look, I don’t really care about your idealistic hopes and dreams, nor does anyone else. What does concern me is your reckless decision to dart in front of me at an intersection. If you’re such a big fan of peace and justice, how about practicing what you preach for the sake of your fellow drivers?

[ No. 183 ]

June 27, 2005

This past weekend, box-office sales declined for an 18th consecutive week, setting a modern-day record in the process.

Is anyone surprised by this prolonged slump? I’m certainly not, considering that Hollywood appears to be running out of original ideas in a hurry. Most of our recent viewing options have been limited to weak TV adaptations (The Honeymooners, Bewitched), inferior remakes (House of Wax, The Longest Yard), and anachronistic sequels (Herbie: Fully Loaded).

And this parade of stale movies won’t subside anytime soon — new versions of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and The Bad News Bears, as well as a movie version of The Dukes of Hazzard, are also scheduled for release this summer.

This reminds me — I’ve gotta decide which book to read next.

[ No. 182 ]

June 23, 2005

Highlights from the outdoor Wilco concert that I attended with my friends Larry and Christina:

[ No. 181 ]

June 17, 2005

Joined a bunch of friends to see Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers and the Black Crowes at the Tweeter Center in Camden, N.J., for a Friday night concert.

First, the bad news: I don’t think I’ll ever see another show at the Tweeter Center again. In fact, if Jesus Christ returned to Earth and was scheduled to deliver a guest lecture from that venue, I still wouldn’t buy tickets.

In all of my years driving to the Jersey shore on a Friday night, I have never seen heavier traffic. We spent at least an hour on the Ben Franklin Bridge, thanks to two cops who were directing cars one at a time at the foot of the bridge. Somehow, the five-mile drive from our meeting place on Columbus Boulevard to the Camden waterfront took about 90 minutes, and I was very disappointed that we missed about two-thirds of the Black Crowes’ set.

Once we arrived at the Tweeter Center, everything was a hassle. The line for each restroom easily topped 100 people. The cashier at the concession stand couldn’t subtract $11.50 from $21.50, even with a modern cash register at her disposal. But above all, our lawn seats were marred by a really ugly crowd. Stale pot smoke hung in the air around us all night, and after I complained to one drunken woman who literally fell into me, she repeatedly shouted obscenities at me, as though I was the one ruining her evening.

Aside from the hellish venue, Tom Petty sounded great — I’ve always wanted to see him perform, and he put on quite a show. My favorite moments included a surprise cover of Van Morrison’s “Baby Please Don’t Go” and a rocking encore that featured “You Wreck Me” and “American Girl.” And I have to admit that we definitely lucked out in terms of the weather — we couldn’t have asked for a more pleasant June evening for an outdoor concert.

Tom, when you come back to the Philly area for another show, please play somewhere else. I’m begging you.

[ No. 180 ]

June 14, 2005

It’s time for a little audience participation here on

Here’s the situation: this is my second season playing on a softball team in a league at work. We play one game each week from April through August. This should be a great opportunity to get some fresh air, meet some coworkers, and have some fun, right?

Well, I’m spending some time outdoors and meeting some new friends, but I haven’t been having a good time at all recently. And why not?

Because I stink at softball.

I don’t think I’m being too hard on myself, either. I played somewhat respectably last season, but I don’t think I’ve driven a single ball out of the infield this year, and the pattern is getting worse with each consecutive week.

The game that we played earlier tonight was a new low for me. With the score tied 12–12 in the bottom of the seventh and final inning, I stepped to the plate with the bases loaded and two outs. A single into the outfield would seal the victory — not a tall order for a competent player. But I only managed to hit a pop-up to the shortstop for the third out, we went to an extra eighth inning, and our team eventually lost, 15–13. None of my teammates gave me a hard time, but there’s no question that I blew a golden opportunity to win the game (and redeem myself, at least for one evening).

I’m not terribly competitive when it comes to playing sports, and I know that it’s only a game, but I’m getting very frustrated with myself. On top of that, I’m feeling guilty for letting my team down on a regular basis, and I’m starting to think that I’m wasting my time on a sport that I’m just not very good at.

Anyway, this is where you come in — what should I do next?

  1. Should I hang up the cleats now and find another hobby, or stick it out for the rest of the season?
  2. If I continue to play, how do I get better — visit the batting cages more often? Hire a coach for some remedial hitting lessons (if such a person exists)? Or can you recommend another approach that might improve my woeful batting average? I’m all ears, folks.

In the absence of comments on this site, drop me an e-mail and let me know what you think. I’ll tabulate the responses and post ’em here soon.

* Update: Thanks to everyone who took the time to pass along some advice for improving my softball skills. The responses, in part:

Steve — I feel your pain. I absolutely suck at baseball/softball (not that you suck but I understand the frustration). … I guess the trick is to play something that you feel good enough about your ability and also enjoy. Otherwise, why torture yourself. Life is too short, right?
Chris — …I am working getting you a hitting coach if the results of your audience response warrant that route. … She was the clean up hitter on most of her teams.
Jeff — …I know what you mean about being frustrated at a sport. I feel that way about golf. I really stink and I can only suck it up for so long.
Brian — First of all, remember that it’s a freakin’ game. There is no reason to press at all. … (1) While at the [batting] cage, don’t try to pull the ball. … (2) Do not choke the bat. Relax your grip. If you’re strangling the bat, then you’re losing all the potential power you have. … (3) Start swinging the bat slowly at the cage. … The bat will generate all the speed and power. … (4) Work on a level swing. I haven’t seen how you swing, but if you have an uppercut, the odds are you’re going to pop up on any high pitch.
Todd — I say hang it up when it is absolutely hopeless. When is that? When you truly think you have exhausted all options to make it fun and enjoyable. … So I guess my vote is stay with it, with the caveat of quitting further down the line when you know it is what you really want. I think your ideas of batting cages and coaches are good. … I think there is a lot to be said for repetition. If you are always swinging, then you will be ready when it is the real thing.
Tony — …Don’t worry about your mechanics — hitting a softball is not impossible. Simply stop by the cages a few times, and you’ll start to adapt your swing (naturally) to the different pitch locations. Pick a slow setting — the slower the better. You will eventually get your timing down. I’d bet that by the time you’re on your third dollar’s worth of practice, you’ll be hitting the ball much more cleanly. … Or just drink more.
Larry — …I’d hit the batting cages. At least you will have the pretense of trying to improve.

Wise words from one and all, and a pleasant reminder that I have plenty of readers!

The playoffs in our softball league are just over a month away, so I’ll stick it out for the remainder of our schedule. But the jury is still out on the 2006 season.

[ No. 179 ]

June 10, 2005

I had the pleasure of attending the beautiful wedding of Laurie and Mike, two of my shore housemates. The ceremony was held on the beach at 88th Street in Stone Harbor, N.J., on a perfect late Friday afternoon. We continued the festivites with a reception at the elegant Yacht Club of Stone Harbor and a casual after-party at the Windrift in neighboring Avalon.

Considering all of the funny stories that have emerged from our shore group over the years, it’s not surprising that a few comical moments took place:

[ No. 178 ]

June 7, 2005

If nothing else, this post will remind me that it’s quite possible to lose weight and get in shape again — but I really had to work for the results.

Like millions of people this past January, I made my perennial resolution to shed some extra pounds. A predictable goal, to be sure. But this time around felt different — maybe it was because I had recently turned 30, or because the latter half of 2004 had been especially unkind to my appearance. Whatever the case, a lot of things had to change.

Now, five months later and 18 pounds lighter, I’m feeling genuinely healthy for the first time in a few years, and it’s less likely that my physique will frighten small children at the Jersey shore this summer.

How did I do it? Well, I didn’t stop eating bread, and I didn’t drop hundreds of dollars on a strength-training contraption from a late-night infomercial. Instead, I simply followed a self-directed, two-step program:

Exercise more, eat less.

You’re wasting your time if you’re fussing over net carbs and trans fats. The name of the game is, and always has been, calories. If you burn more of them during exercise and ingest fewer of them at each meal, you’re going to see a noticeable difference. Here’s what worked for me:

Exercise more. Working out is essential to losing weight, period. If you simply go on a diet but neglect to exercise on a regular basis, you’re probably not going to see long-term results.

My exercise regimen consists of four workouts per week — no excuses, other than illness. The schedule provides plenty of flexibility for my other plans and commitments, but it ensures that I’m exercising roughly every other day. And for some reason, keeping the four-per-week streak alive has been good motivation for me — after 22 weeks, I’ve completed exactly 88 workouts.

Variety among my workouts has been important, by the way. I usually balance at least one full circuit of weight training at the gym each week with a few two- to three-mile runs outside.

Eat less. The food part of the equation can be just as challenging — you have to eat, after all. Although I’m sure I could still improve what I choose to eat, I’ve made a conscious effort to opt for smaller portions when I fix a meal at home. And since most restaurants insist on serving ridiculously large entrées, I’ll sometimes save half of my dinner for a take-out carton and enjoy the leftovers the following evening.

I’ve also found that eating earlier in the day is very effective — in fact, I rarely eat anything after 7 p.m. anymore. And for people like me who love soda but can’t stand diet soda, there’s a solution. You don’t have to give up soft drinks entirely, but try Gatorade more often. It’s available in several good flavors, rehydrates you better than most other drinks, and has half the calories of soda.

Again, I’m no expert in physical fitness or nutrition, but the changes I’ve made have worked very well thus far. I just hope I can keep up the good habits for another five months! I guess time will tell.

[ No. 177 ]

June 4–5, 2005

Joined up with my college friends Tony and Larry for a great weekend in and around Washington, D.C.

Shortly after I arrived at their place in Arlington, we headed over to the International Spy Museum. While there, we attended an impressive tour about the long history of espionage as well as a fascinating special exhibit about domestic terrorism called “The Enemy Within.”

(Punch line of the weekend: while looking at an antique cipher device behind a glass display case in the museum, I recalled the message from the secret decoder ring in A Christmas Story: BE SURE TO DRINK YOUR OVALTINE.)

We followed the dual Spy Museum tour with an excellent steak dinner at the nearby District Chop House, then took the Metro to RFK Stadium to see my first Washington Nationals game, in which the Nats defeated the Marlins, 7–3. The remainder of the night found us enjoying some beers at Kelly’s Irish Times, where Larry bumped into some of his classmates from law school.

After such an action-packed Saturday, we opted for a relaxing Sunday afternoon — the three of us walked over to the Silver Diner for some great burgers and shakes before I made the trip back home.

[ No. 176 ]

June 1, 2005

Let’s kick off the new month with some good news about Philadelphia for a change, shall we?

Thanks to Daniel Rubin and his great new Philly-based blog, Blinq, I was surprised to learn that Philadelphia has become a national role model for its approach to helping the homeless. The Rocky Mountain News describes our town’s humane, forward-thinking programs in detail.

It’s an genuinely inspiring story — make sure to check it out.

[ No. 175 ]